Literature in CBA?

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I’m going to keep trying to define what exactly I’m looking for, what I know a lot of people in and around CBA are hoping for, with this writing revolution. It can feel at times that we’re only getting further from the issue, but I guess it’s kind of like making a stew. When you’re throwing so many different things into the pot you’re not sure how it’s going to turn out. But once it’s cooked, you believe you’ll have a uniform flavor. This blog is on “thoughts about writing for a higher purpose.” It’s a work in progress, and I’m just like Katy, fallible, but grateful to the grace of the many people who frequent here and who participate in the wanderings.

Thanks for the thoughtful responses on this topic of authentic faith writers. It’s inspiring (i.e. daunting) to realize some of the many literary giants we have to draw and learn from. Ernest Gaines, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee—all what you’d call classic Southern Christian writers. I’m not sure if there are more Southern Christian writers than there are classic Christian British writers, but there are certainly a lot of them. Even modern-day Southern writers who incorporate Christian themes: Pat Conroy, Doris Betts, Dale Cramer, Robert Morgan, Wendell Berry, Darcey Steinke, and Joyce Carol Oates. (Okay, Oates is East coast.)

But there are also no shortage of classic British writers who explore Christian themes: George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, Daniel Defoe, Graham Greene, Eudora Welty, Thomas Merton. I’m forgetting many.

And we could also mention that most of the modern day Christian literature writers have Catholic (read pretentious?) sensibilities: Thomas Wolfe, Ron Hansen, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Margaret Atwood, Madeline L’Engle, Anne Lamott, Bret Lott. L’Engle, Lamott and Lott might just have liturgical, ecumenical, or Episcopalian sensibilities. They don’t tend to be “the people’s” writers.

Leif Enger is Midwestern. There are a few of these out there too. Walter Wangerin, Garrison Keillor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way trying to categorize these to put the works on the shelf and be done with them. They have great things to teach us, each one of them. And there will be no “but” to this comment because I want us never to dismiss any of this great heritage of faith writing. Far be it from me. This is where I’m hoping we can woo CBA to begin exploring. Lasting literature of value.

But where is the postmodern literature culture in CBA? Is that an oxymoron? There are a lot of more literary novels for women. Nothing wrong with that. Women buy books. Just check out ACFW. And many of the genre writers in CBA are stretching the boundaries because they have the same desire to see something new take shape. But they’re bound by the publishers who are bound by the market. And the market isn’t demanding art. It really isn’t rocket science, I know. I’m just whining.

I am sincerely inspired by all the efforts being made to get something better than the average fare out there. Bethany, Harvest House, Westbow, Multnomah, Waterbrook. Everywhere are aquisitions editors making small headway with their small scepters. Still, fact is, too many books are written to fill the pipeline and cater to the demands of CBA. The main reason I wanted to highlight some authentic Christian pomo literature writers (and indy publishers like Brook Street) is that there’s too much catering to their sales reps and the supposed demands of fickle book buyers. While the publishers need their books to sell, they’ve made it the most important thing (not in philosophy, but in practice). Good books should be the most important thing, not making sure there’s a demonstrated, large enough audience to buy them. But this is just the real world I’m yelling at, isn’t it? Of course, I said I was going to stop doing this. Sorry, sorry. Holden Caufield will never die.

Alas and alack. We need American popular-literary “everyman” books who don’t exist just for consumer Christians, but for the whole of culture, for the God of the universe, and for the beauty, truth, and art of everyday life. And that requires some authentic, unashamed, approved workmen who know the pomo score and disregard their scorecards.

And now I’m going back to writing my supremely inadequate novel about all this, so talk amongst yourselves.

But here’s a thought that stands out to me as I wrap up here. It’s very interesting—and possibly revealing—that Margaret Atwood is Canadian, along with Douglas Coupland (and Alistair MacLeod, who is not a Christian, to my knowledge, but an unbelievable writer of postmodern literature). But they seriously make you want to be Canadian. They come about the closest to the modern art of popular-literary fiction as I can imagine. And maybe that’s just for me. But maybe they resonate with others too—and just maybe they indicate something else: that it just isn’t possible to write like this as a Christian in America in CBA, because the publishers demand genre writing. Demand you fit the niches. I really don’t know. That’s my hunch.

But let’s find the postmodern American Christian liturature that has burst through the locked doors of CBA, gang. I’ll keep looking too…

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5 thoughts on “Literature in CBA?”

  1. I’m sure there are many misrepresentations about the writers listed here, now that I think about it. I’m sorry about that too. Please correct any obvious errors or omissions.
    Also, be sure to check out Robin’s thoughts on this in his feature at InFuze mag “What I Learned at the Revolution” (http://www.infuzemag.com/features/archives/2005/01/what_i_learned.html): “The “Christian” industries put out a lot of good products, but there’s something at the core of these very industries that takes the power of discernment away from the individual. And that’s very dangerous, according to Leo Partible. Christian retail stores, he says, take in stamped and approved materials that are very mediocre, while outright ignoring influential voices like Flannery O’Connor and Madeleine L’Engle. And so now there are entire book, music, and art industries devoted to making and marketing products specifically to those customers. What about the rest of the world? Chris Yambar believes it happens this way out of guilt and a corporate desire for propaganda. Ginny Owens laments the days, centuries ago, when church leaders and the people of the church were the frontrunners in artistic culture. They were the best at their crafts. They led the rest of the world in how to make good art. Now, we’ve segregated ourselves away into this subculture to the point that nothing we create is taken seriously as art by the rest of the world. We must stop wasting time this way if we are to gain a voice in society.”
    Here, hear!

  2. “‘…there’s something at the core of these very industires that takes the power of discernment away from the individual.'”
    And therein lies the biggest problem with the CBA as far as I’m concerned. But as you point out, Mick, the decision of the publishers is guided first by what they believe will sell, so it’s not even a “we know best” attitude.
    Honestly, that’s why I can’t get all that upset by the popularity of “genre” stories like Dekker’s or Jenkins/LaHaye’s–it wasn’t that long ago that CBA had no place for the thriller or fantasy (speculative story)–not on principle, but because it “wouldn’t sell.” Now that it is, I think the industry is ripe for change.
    My cry remains, however, that whatever we do as Christians–whatever we feel God calling us to write–should be well crafted. Why should beautiful language or fully developed characters be reserved for “literary” fiction?
    Again, the above quote from the Infuze article is right on–used to be Christian arts led the way. For whatever reason, we abdicated the field, and it is no easy task to regain what we have yielded. But I think, especially in our story-driven culture, it is necessary

  3. Maybe the postmodern American Christian literature we’re looking for isn’t exactly bursting through the locked doors of CBA, the way we’d like it to. Maybe instead it’s trickling through or streaming through–but it is starting to get through.
    Lisa Samson is an amazing CBA author whose sales evidently aren’t yet an accurate reflection of the gifts she’s giving to the world. So she hasn’t “burst through the locked doors of CBA,” but my big CBA store here in KC usually has one copy of one of her titles…She’s at least streamed through, and what a refreshing stream it is!

  4. “My cry remains, however, that whatever we do as Christians–whatever we feel God calling us to write–should be well crafted. Why should beautiful language or fully developed characters be reserved for ‘literary’ fiction?”
    Becky, I agree with you. Literature regardless of the genre should be well crafted. As a book reviewer of mostly African American Christian fiction (if there is such a distinction), I read many books that have plots that collapse after the first chapter, bad writing, the whole nine. It’s time that we dust off our manuscripts hiding in our daughter’s baby doll crib, clean it up, and submit or we may have a serious problem down the road.

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